Contemporary Art in Israel

Confronting local politics--on an international stage.

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From painting to sculpture to video and performance art, contemporary Israeli artists are, increasingly, ambassadors of a national culture and identity. From the bi-annual pavilion at the Venice Bienale to the white-box galleries of London, New York, Paris, and Tel Aviv to the generous circuit of juried international shows and art fairs across the world, contemporary Israeli artists are innovating and building on an artistic legacy rooted in Jewish history and identity, the land of Israel, and the encounter with various modernities.

 

Mediating the Past

The Holocaust is a powerful inspiration for many artists working today. Many have translated their emotional response to trauma and tragedy into the visual language of abstraction, as both a pure expression of spirit and as an adherence to the biblical prohibition on representative images. As abstract expressionism gained favor in Europe and America, its innovations were harnessed by Israeli artists for cathartic, rather than formalist, purposes.

Moshe Kupferman (1926-2003) employed muted colors and geometric formations in his paintings to conceal and reveal aspects of his experience as a survivor of the Polish camps. Moshe Gershuni (b. 1936) began his career as a conceptual performance artist, singing prayers at galleries and museums, but gained renown as an expressionist painter whose works deal with biblical themes and religious belief. Michael Gross (1920-2004) also took up the task of translating religious pathos in his sculpture and painting, with great sensual effect. Considered one of the greatest painters and sculptors of modern Israeli art, Gross developed a type of minimalism strongly influenced by natural form and the ethos of the Israeli landscape.

Figurative Painting

There is still a strong school of figurative painting in Israel that builds on the rich landscape tradition of early Zionist artists, who linked the beauty of the terrain to their destiny to occupy the land of their ancestors.

Israel Hershberg (b. 1948) is a supreme naturalist, painting highly detailed landscapes infused with Mediterranean light and a patina of desert dust. His close examination of cypress trees creates portraits of iconic green sentinels on the horizon. Menashe Kadishman (b. 1932) has painted a great range of subjects, but his consistent use of images of sheep, often in a colorful, pop style, have become symbolic of the Israeli identity struggle--between a pastoral, nomadic heritage and a sad history of victimhood.

Tsibi Geva (b. 1951) uses everyday symbols and ornamentation of Arab and Israeli life in a style that is both abstract and figurative. In the 1980s, his paintings depicted the names of Arab and Jewish cities in Israel, asserting an overtly political message about authority and territory. His more recent works manipulate patterns from everyday objects signifying Arab identity such as backgammon boards, kaffiyehs, and floor tiles. David Reeb (b. 1952) also addresses Arab and Israeli opposition, perhaps more overtly than other prominent artists, employing irony and the tactics of advertising in his beautifully rendered paintings. The monochrome Let's Have Another War (1997) was his entry for Documenta X in Kassel, Germany and was based on photos of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.